Man, 2017, y’all. We realize that it’s kind of our m.o. to be proponents of the whole “Golden Age of Metal” narrative and be incredibly positive about the consistently great level of stuff that is being put out from pretty much every part of the musical spectrum, but it’s such an easy thing to do when we are so constantly bombarded with new material that utterly consumes our attention. Even in months where one of us might not have as many new albums that really impressed them, without doubt there will be another one who could barely keep up because of all the superb releases from genres they pay close attention to. This April has certainly been no different in that regard, and we have a whole slew of top-notch albums to recommend to you all.
Before we move onto that though, I wanted to talk a little bit about the potential elephant in the room that is not included in our list below. Regardless of what sort of music you gravitate towards and what sort of social circles you frequent, it was pretty impossible to escape discussion this past month of the newest album from the force that is Kendrick Lamar. There are a lot of us on staff here, including several of us in editorial, who love Kendrick’s body of work as a whole and contributed to the general fawning over of To Pimp a Butterfly (our #9 top album in our 2015 end-of-year aggregate list) and last year’s untitled unmastered. While we don’t speak for our entire staff in this column (hence why it’s just “editors’ picks”), I can speak for our editorial staff here when I say that DAMN. has unfortunately failed to impress us and capture our attention in any way close to his previous work. Though his output up to this point has had a feeling of meticulousness and exploration pored over pretty much every inch of his music, the same cannot be said for much of DAMN., from the barebones and lackluster beats of tracks like lead single “HUMBLE.”, the few off-the-wall experimentations that just felt utterly misplaced like the U2 collaboration “XXX.”, all the way to the album’s intentionally poorly-designed cover (not helped by the people behind it trying to justify it by essentially saying “But it’s supposed to look lazy and poorly-designed, get it?”). Ultimately, the entire package feels less like a subversion and more like something that is simply average and ordinary. And for an artist for whom those two words have never seemed appropriate, it’s hugely disappointing to feel that way.
Granted, I (Nick) will freely and fully admit that I am not someone who closely listens to hip-hop for hip-hop’s sake like I do with other genres I enjoy more, and that the jazz experimentations of TPAB were my real entry point for Kendrick (and the removal of that element in DAMN. is a significant part of my disappointment in it), so I can recognize that my opinions on the matter may not be given as much weight as others. That said, we do have members in our editorial staff who do follow the genre very closely, and it’s very telling that all of us have had pretty much identical reactions to the album independently. So if you want to read a positive take on the album, thankfully you can go to pretty much any other outlet on the internet and find one, but you will not find it here. Of course one of our staff writers may insist on writing up a positive review in response to this in a few days, so who knows. Anyway, here are a bunch of albums from this past month that our editors absolutely did love!
Artificial Brain – Infrared Horizon (experimental death metal)
This is a band that could not have picked up a more perfect name: the sound of Artificial Brain is exactly as complex and obfuscated as any sort of actual artificial brain would be in its nature. Manifold, nuanced songs dance around the listener’s head with surgical precision in a knife-dance between dissonant, freeform chaos and meticulous sonic architecture, bringing to mind immediate comparisons to genre masters Gorguts as well as ‘weird death metal’ progenitors Demilich, especially in the belch-gurgle (burgle?) vocal work. Off the bat, it’s clear that, although only a sophomore LP, Infrared Horizon is made by people who deeply understand what makes this style of extreme metal excellent.
Where Infrared Horizon departs from their influences’ more atmospheric style – mostly in its constant return to speed, dropping any tendencies to linger in the slower moments – they add a layer of powerful musculature on top of a lithe frame. Dust clouds morph into walls of solid rock; tracks like “Static Shattering” drop any pretense of foggy, grim theatrics on a dime to throw down riffs that – to be frank – hit like a fucking truck. In these moments, you remember that this genre is death metal made by humans, which makes the returns to pinpoint accuracy all the more impressive.
It’s rare that a death metal album that really has it all comes along, but the second outing from Artificial Brain contains everything needed for an excellent record. The outstanding writing is bolstered by extremely sharp performances from everyone involved, strong aesthetic choices that help bring their vision of a dead cyber-future to life, and some of the best sounding production of the year. This is the whole package. If you’ve ever had your interest piqued by atonal death metal, you sincerely owe it to yourself to listen to Infrared Horizon.
Asira – Efference (post-black metal)
Since Deafheaven‘s seminal Sunbather, there have been many attempts at the ephemeral, mellow post-black metal sound that they swept the scene with. An abundance of attempts doesn’t necessarily correlate with success, however. Without anything meaningful to add to the picture, many such albums have come and gone by. Combining black metal with upbeat melodies isn’t trivial, in fact it seems to be quite challenging to do it well. Enter Asira, the up-and-coming British quintet. While many others have slammed blast beats under major chords played with a lot of reverb, Efference is the first album since Sunbather that has truly changed the game. The key to their success is that they’re not trying to be Deafheaven. Combining elements of Deafheaven’s sound and even most post-rock influences, they’ve crafted their unique sound within a tight niche.
Efference plays with your expectations. Sometimes it cuts all the atmospheric baggage and focuses on simple, raw guitar-and-drums riffage. Other times, it creates a soundscape of ambience and reverberation where any individual instrument is hard to pick out. With singing that can evoke Astronoid and the occasional screaming reminiscent of Enslaved (who their blacker sound seems to evoke), they’ve also differentiated themselves from the rest of the post-black crop. You only get lost in the sound when they want you to, other times everything comes into crisp focus and leads your attention. It sounds simple, but it’s a stark difference to the formula that gives them their unique flair. The overall tone is more than the sum of its parts so it’s hard to pick out individual components of its success.
In a weirdly crowded microgenre, innovation is a tough nut to crack, but inspiration is more important. And that’s what really makes Asira tick. They feel inspired, invigorated and creative. They turn the tables on a familiar and very tired (in its narrow niche) sound to create something fresh yet familiar. As such, Efference is an easy pick for a must-listen album this month.
Colin Stetson – All This I Do For Glory (experimental)
Saxophonist/inhuman being Colin Stetson has been an incredibly busy man these past couple of years. In 2015 he released his monumental collaboration album with violinist Sarah Neufeld Never were the way she was, one of our favorite albums of that year. Last year saw the release of his equally huge and black metal-inspired adaptation of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony in Sorrow. Meanwhile Stetson has also formed a separate ensemble called EX EYE with Greg Fox, Shahzad Ismaily, and Toby Summerfield that is primed to be a fucking destroyer of worlds and is expected to release their debut album later this year. And just in case that wasn’t enough, Stetson has also found time to record and release a new solo album, All This I Do For Glory, his first solo album since 2013’s transcendent New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light.
Given the fact that Stetson proclaimed To See More Light to be the last in his New History Warfare series of solo albums and given all of his non-solo work of late, it’s both surprising and interesting to see him return to the format and kind of music that allowed him to break out in the first place. At the time it certainly seemed as if To See More Light had pushed what he could accomplish on his own in this format – a combination of whirlwind arpeggios and minimalist melodies, rhythmic key clicks, and ethereal vocalizations with zero overdubs other than the occasional guest vocalist – as far as it could go, but perhaps the most shocking thing about All This I Do For Glory is just how much seemingly endless space there is for Stetson to explore in this musical environment.
Stetson’s solo work has always been indebted to landmark electronic artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre, but never to this extent has his work sounded so kinetic and dynamic. The deep bass grooves, crisp rhythms of his keys, and beautiful vocal melodies overlaid on top in the opening title track rival the work of any atmospheric IDM producer out there right now. The same can be said of the frenetic dance-floor melody that forms the spine of next track “Like wolves on the fold,” the off-kilter polyrhythms of the brief but utterly bruising “In the clinches,” and the blisteringly epic 13 minutes that form the album’s conclusion in “The lure of the mine.” There are also moments of pure weirdness like the gut-churning sounds of “Between water and wind” that recall the more alien moments of Never were the way she was, as well as pieces of pure atmospheric beauty like throughout the heavenly “Spindrift.” All of this helps make All This I Do For Glory possibly one of the best “electronic” albums of the year despite being 100% acoustic. Of course it’s plenty more than just that. As usual, Stetson’s music defies all attempts at easy description and categorization. In many ways it ends up sounding like a meeting place between To See More Light and Never were the way she was, but it is also its own beast and fully-realized masterpiece. Most of all it’s another hugely impressive album from an artist making more bold statements using the sax than just about anyone else out there right now.
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy (singer-songwriter)
Ever Since Josh Tillman launched his post-Fleet Foxes solo career as Father John Misty, critics and fans have most prominently lauded him as a biting musical personality whose lyrics are drenched with wry humor and satire galore. Nearly every line on Tillman’s 2015 masterpiece I Love You, Honeybear either set up or delivered a snarky musing on the state of the world as it relates to him and his marriage. Yet, as much of a highlight as the lyrics were on the album, Honeybear truly excelled due to Tillman’s meticulous approach to songwriting. The way he molds the essence of pop, folk and singer/songwriter from the 60s and 70s into his own signature artistic mold leads to truly impeccable compositions. From the arrangements he incorporates in his tracks to the way his voice shines above the average indie folk singer while never overpowering his music, Tillman is truly an exceptional songwriter who could have made Honeybear his swansong and still retain that status.
With all of this being the case, the build up to Pure Comedy had everyone waiting eagerly for the album’s promise of topical commentary accented by Tillman’s lyrical twist. To tackle partisan politics directly, songs like Honeybear’s “Bored in the USA” prompted the indie blogosphere to expect takedowns of Trump to dominate Pure Comedy’s track listing. But across the album’s 74-minute runtime, none of the tracks feel particularly specific about anything that’s going on in the American political landscape, let alone attacking Trump by name or even allusion. And in general, Pure Comedy is anything but—most of Tillman’s punchlines are weighed down by a heavy dose of introspection and frustration. Concurrently, his upbeat, lovebird side from Honeybear has been set aside in favor of melancholic piano ballads and a subdued delivery.
This shift has received some understandable disappointment from fans, but to me, Pure Comedy falls squarely in line with Tillman’s tendency to write music for and about him. And with this being the case, it makes perfect sense that his take on our current state of affairs has less in common with the Daily Show segment everyone anticipated. Instead, Tillman has simply laid out his own personal venting through music; at least the core of every track feels like a product of his tinkering at the piano or strumming a guitar in his open, empty house. He effortlessly expands and contracts this formula as well, ranging from a full band arrangement for a grandiose piano rock anthem on the title track to an elongated, skeletal acoustic guitar/vocal journey accompanied by only sparse strings on “Leaving LA.” A number of highlights operate in the means between these extremes—“Ballad of the Dying Man” is a gorgeous, sweeping track elevated by a gospel choir finale, and the dusty Americana of “Smoochie” provides a perfect buffer between “Leaving LA” and the handful of somber closing tracks.
While there may be no avoiding the fact that Tillman didn’t deliver the biting social commentary everyone wanted, it’s clear that he made the album that he most needed to make at this point in his career. Pure Comedy certainly has its flaws from his growing pains as an artist, namely a somewhat bloated runtime and a lack of variety that Honeybear had in spades. But this only acts as a primer for what lies ahead in the next page of Father John Misty’s songbook, a tome that thrives in the relatability of Tillman’s outward and inward reflection as well as his intricate approach to his craft.
Ingurgitating Oblivion – Vision Wallows In Symphonies of Light (tech death)
This is not the album I was originally going to pick. There are many releases in this excellent month that would be more natural picks for me. Ulver, Ayreon, and more are all releases that I’ve been looking forward to for a while now and which exceeded my expectations and then some. So, why did I end up choosing this album, a release which is in a genre that I usually either don’t enjoy or that I outright just don’t get? Because it’s amazing. It’s so amazing that it cut through my usual aversion from the style and, coupled with Artificial Brain, fully cemented 2017 as the year of the weird tech death album.
So yes, Ingurgitating Oblivion play that form of technical death metal that is heavily inspired by Gorguts but, once again along with Artificial Brain, have made sure to go beyond the trend setters. Vision Wallows in Symphonies of Light is a dense and infinitely exciting album, unfolding before the listener’s ears interlaced guitar lines, blistering drums and guttural vocals. But, above all, it submerges the listener in an atmosphere that is unique, a heavy pall of weighty ideas, too pure marble, and sickly inner contemplation. From track titles, through snare sound, to lyrical content, Vision Wallows in Symphonies of Light is very much its own creation, achieving a level of uniqueness very rarely found in a niche genre still very much obsessed with the ideas that birthed it.
The album achieves this by bravely departing from the formula. It incorporates a lot of quiet, haunting passages, a tool not often used in a genre that prides itself in pummeling the listener into dirt with its nonstop blast-beats and searing leads. Vision however uses those “quiet” moments to further embellish the oppression when it hits, creating a context and a contrast in which it can operate. Make no mistake: there are plenty of moments on the album whose sheer technicality and scale will leave your jaw gaping. However, the album has much more than that. The only way to truly get a feel for it is to listen to it, over and over again, as its fascinating manifold opens up before you again and again, each time revealing more layers. For its seemingly infinite replayability and genre deviation, Vision Wallows in Symphonies of Light is my pick for April.
Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar (darkwave)
Coming up with a reasonable enough write-up for the new Ulver record The Assassination of Julius Caesar after Eden’s self-described and unapologetically pretentious review is quite the task, so I figured I’d go the opposite route and be as informal as possible and just plead directly to you to just listen to this record, at whatever cost.
I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m a fan of Ulver; their discography is so labyrinthine in nature that you really have no idea what you’re going into until you’re in the thick of it. Ulver have earned their status as legends by all means, but I find their classic black metal work to be unlistenable. I thought their weird foray into experimental electronic music in the past was too obtuse. And I’m just not really that much of a fan of folk music, if I’m being honest. Though, I did adore their collaboration with Sunn O))) through Terrestrials (so much so that I purchased it on vinyl), and I got lost in awe throughout their cinematic instrumental record ATGCLVLSSCAP (I swear I’ll own it one day!).
But at the end of the day, I was in no hurry to listen to this record but I’m sure I would get around to it eventually.
Eventually finally came, and now The Assassination of Julius Caesar is guaranteed a spot in my top 10 records of 2017.
So guys, please, no matter where you’re coming from, especially if you’re not a fan of Ulver based on past work and never put much effort into trying to find an entry point, listen to this record. This is the band’s full immersion into pop music that fits right in with the 80’s retrofuturism that Purturbator has popularized, but does so with immediate hooks, memorable songs, and a shot of industrial experimentation. Even if you’re not a fan of this style, listen to this record, because it is phenomenal.
– Jimmy Rowe
Other Notable Releases
Arms of Tripoli – Daughters (post/math rock)
The sophomore album from the LA post-rock collective Arms of Tripoli builds off the success of their debut Dream In Tongues by continuing what they do best – a mixture of groove-heavy and intricate instrumental rock with sunny guitars and frequent use of vibes on top – while doubling down on the heavier and more pensive side of their compositions.
Ayreon – The Source (progressive rock)
You didn’t really think I wouldn’t write about this album? Epic, progressive metal which does everything involved in that well; expect choirs, riffs, and Queen influences.
Bestia Arcana – Holókauston (black metal)
Naas Alcameth has quickly become a pillar of modern black metal, what with exceptional releases as Akhyls, Nightbringer and Bestia Arcana in the past few years. He and his cohorts have been especially busy in 2017, dropping two thunderous albums this month that are both essential listening for fans of the genre. And though you shouldn’t pick just one to check out, Holókauston is a triumph all its own, exceeding all expectations established by To Anabainon ek tes Abyssu in 2011 by doubling down on the menacing atmospheres, pummeling blast beats and monolith riffs.
GAS – Narkopop (ambient)
To say Narkopop was a pleasant surprise undersells both the context and substance of the album. Wolfgang Voigt‘s last offering as Gas was 2000’s Pop, one of the most stunningly beautiful and mesmerizing ambient albums ever laid to tape. Not only does Narkopop expand upon everything its predecessor accomplished, the record shows Voigt once again adding new colors to ambient music’ enormous sonic palette.
HCMJ – Flight (experimental, drone, vaporwave)
Buzzsaw guitars, vocal samples, and synthetic drums melt together into a slurry of uncomfortable sludgy repetitions beneath transcendent choirs that will set your teeth on edge before unwinding into a beautiful numbness. Definitely not for those with an aversion for weirdness, but if you can find the palatable in this, it’s certainly worth it.
The Physics House Band – Mercury Fountain (progressive/math rock)
Somewhere in between the taught instrumental math rock of the likes of Battles and And So I Watch You From Afar and the cosmic jamminess of Grails, the sophomore album from this Brighton trio is pure dynamite and explosions from front to back. Despite being only a brisk 29 minutes long, the band cover so much ground in that time that it feels entirely appropriate as a sleek and well-oiled machine.
Subetroth – Agnozia (experimental doom metal)
What do you get when you combine folk instruments, fretless guitars and bass, and the most ungodly tones out there? This album.